By Dr Reeja George*

Cats have a lot to tell us. Our conceptions about food are quite different from theirs. These furry delights are best described as obligate carnivores, which means that the nutrients they require are found exclusively in animal products. Traditionally, the cat is a hunter and its choice of prey ensures that its diet contains quite high amounts of protein, somewhat moderate amounts of fats, and considerably less amounts of carbohydrates. As we know it today, our cats are fed generally on commercially available as well as homemade diets; they do not hunt to earn their meals. It is, however, important that pet parents be aware of various options among the commercial types of feed that are available in the market today. Among the differently commercial preparations available, generally the commonly seen ones are dry, semi moist, and wet or canned foods. 

What Should A Cat Diet Contain?

Whatever food you choose, it remains unsaid that the most important aspect of a cat’s diet is undoubtedly a readily available supply of clean drinking water. Dehydration can be life threatening and it is important that your cat has water always. A good amount of protein is also crucial to keeping her tissues, muscles, and organs healthy. As you may be aware, proteins are made up of amino acids. All proteins do not contain the same amino acids; some amino acids are found exclusively in certain types of foods. So also, some amino acids are crucial for life – these are the essential amino acids.  For a cat, the invariable or essential amino acid is taurine and also arginine, which is found exclusively in foods of animal origin and in fish also. Diets that are deficient in taurine could cause a lethal condition called cardiomyopathy in your cat, so it is very important that their diet contains a substantial amount of ingredients of animal origin. Cats also need sufficient amount of fat in their diets and among these the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids have important roles in keeping inflammation to a minimum, ensuring health of cat’s joints, skin, and other organs as well.  Carbohydrates are not a major component of cat diets but they have a role as a source of energy.  There are some foods that should not be fed to cats. These include chocolate, avocado, grapes, onions, and xylitol.

Dry Food

Dry food usually contains the least amount of moisture, between five and ten per cent and these are generally made up, to a great extent, of meats of various species along with fish, grain, fibre, and added vitamins. Dry food is usually in pellet form. This is the least expensive type of commercial food available. If you feed your cat dry food, you should always be careful to provide it with sufficient quantity of water. Cats generally find dry food a little unappetizing when compared to the other options available. Whatever the case, it is important that the food you purchase should be stored in airtight containers to prevent it from getting rancid. Rancidity could be due to the oxidation of animal fats that are used to coat these dry food pellets to enhance their palatability. Though dry foods can be stored for some time, you should not store them for a very long time as the quality and vitamin content of food could also deteriorate over time. So watch the expiry dates.

Semi Moist Food

Semi moist food contains around 35 per cent of moisture. These foods are made up, to a great extent, of meat with quantity enhancers such as grains, cereals, and soya. Cats have a greater preference for semi moist food when compared to the dry ones. Semi moist food has to be used up immediately on opening.

Canned Foods

Canned food is soft and wet in texture with high water content. These foods generally contain around seventy-five per cent of moisture and are highly palatable and enjoyed by cats. Canning is done under vacuum and therefore the contents of can, once opened, will have to be used as fast as possible, though you could store it for a little while in refrigerator, as per the directions of manufacturer. Canned foods are generally tastier for kitty when compared to semi moist and dry foods; but the taste comes at a cost and these foods are quite expensive when compared to the other two options. In many cases, there may be instances when canned foods are advantageous to cats; this could be a good option for cats who intrinsically have a basic dislike for drinking water and also in the case of elderly cats among whom kidney diseases are quite common.

What to Look for in a Cat Food?

Just as in the case of humans, a cat’s requirements vary with the stage of life as it grows from a kitten into a queen, and moves into pregnancy and lactation and of course into old age as well.  Cat foods will have labels indicating the stage for which the feed has been formulated.  Cat foods for all stages are available in market. After you have chosen the food based on the life stage of your cat, look at the label indicating the ingredients where constituent items will be listed in the order of decreasing proportion so that those ingredients with higher weight would come on top of the list. Ideal cat foods should have more of meat and fish based ingredients, both of which contain amino acids that are crucial to their diet.  

The Milk Conundrum

Despite the mental images that we have formed showing cats happily lapping up saucers of milk, in real life, cats are lactose intolerant and feeding cow or goat milk to them could cause stomach problems.

The Age Consideration

If your cat is older, feed her a ‘senior citizen’ diet that contains higher amount of fibre, lower levels of protein and minerals (salt). This is because kidney problems are quite common in cats and high protein diets can be quite stressful for sick kidneys. Elderly cats may also have appetite issues that may interfere with their vitamin and mineral needs, so you may have to see your vets for extra supplements.

Homemade Meals

For vegetarian cat parents, it would be rather difficult to cook cat meals at home because of the need to include fish and animal meats. However, if you would like to try it out, there are many options available.  The day could begin with a breakfast of eggs and cheese wherein you cook up three eggs in a frying pan with a tablespoon of milk, then add in two tablespoons of grated vegetables and top it with around two to three tablespoons of cottage cheese.  Chicken stew is a good option for lunch as well as dinner and it’s just a sort of broth of cooked chicken with a little bit of rice, peas, beans, and other vegetables.  You could also have a cooked chicken meal with an egg tossed in or a cooked fish and egg meal. Sardines and mackerel can be cooked with a little rice and vegetables as well. Though some parents feed their cats with raw food, as a veterinarian I would not recommend this due to the dangers of infections.  

* Author is the Associate Professor, Department of Veterinary and AH Extension, College of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, Mannuthy, Thrissur, Kerala.

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